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Supreme Court Justice Breyer, Legal Scholars Explore Human Rights

US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer says the average citizen probably doesn’t distinguish between a domestic rights tradition versus one that focuses on international human rights.

April 22, 2014 – Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer joined a panel of legal scholars and judicial experts yesterday at Georgetown’s Law Center to explore the progression, challenges and future of the human rights law.

Breyer said the average citizen probably doesn’t distinguish between whether the United States has a domestic rights tradition as opposed to an international one.

“I would say, I don’t care what the source of the right is [if I were the average citizen]," he said. "I do care about whether I can say what I want. I do care about people not putting me in jail arbitrarily [and] having some kind of protection for unpopular ideas …"

Breyer is the third justice to speak at Georgetown this semester. Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor spoke at Georgetown in March and April, respectively.

Historical Accident

Georgetown law professors Rosa Brooks and David Cole, retired Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pamela Karlan and other guests joined the human rights conversation.

Cole said the United States doesn't explore international human rights as much as other countries, and noted that South Africa's constitution expressly borrows from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Brooks asked Karlan why the notion of civil rights seems easier to grasp in this country than international human rights.

“Just as a historical accident, we stick with the language that brought us here,” Karlan said, adding that Americans can’t expect a federal court to provide human rights that aren't in a constitution or statute. 

Universal values

Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, introduced the panel of legal experts, Law Center Dean William Treanor and Andrew Schoenholtz, visiting professor and director of Georgetown Law's Human Rights Institute.

The April 21 event celebrated the Review – co-founded by Silvers more than 50 years ago – and the life of the late New York University law professor Ronald Dworkin, one of the Review’s prolific contributors. Several panelists, including Cole and Breyer, have written for the publication.

Panelists also talked about socioeconomic rights, the importance of the rule of law and the concept of universal human rights.

“I was told when I joined the court, don’t just talk to your contemporaries,” Breyer said. “Talk to your grandchildren, their friends, artists, movie makers, painters, writers. Because they will tell you what’s going on — you won’t know. And your job will be … to take values that are universal and come from the past … but apply them to this world.”

View the video here.

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